Expert views: China's national defence white paper

For the first time since 2015, China has released a new national defence white paper. Titled "China’s National Defense in the New Era", it is a key document to understand China’s national military policy and view of the geopolitical environment after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and continued leadership of President Xi Jinping.

The document also follows major reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) begun in 2015 to modernise the force, downsize the army, and increase air, sea and space capabilities.

The Asia Media Centre sought the views of five China and defence experts. 

Rouben Azizian, Professor at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University:

China’s new defence white paper demonstrates the country’s growing strategic confidence and assertiveness as well as the Chinese leadership’s sensitivity to international concerns about a lack of transparency in its impressive military modernisation. The disclosure of military expenditures, the efforts to rationalise the structure of military forces and tighten the political control of the PLA, all emphasised in the document, are mostly positive signs.

Interestingly for New Zealand, the white paper identifies biosecurity as one of the more pronounced non-traditional security threats alongside cyber security and piracy. The document resonates with New Zealand’s 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement in recognising that international strategic competition is on the rise. However, and not surprisingly, the white paper points to the United States as the main reason for that and portrays China’s response as purely defensive. Australia is mentioned in the document rather negatively as a close ally of the United States whereas China denounces the very principle of military alliance as inconsistent with the new security era. The South Pacific is mentioned briefly in the context of China strengthening military exchanges with developing countries by "carrying out personnel training, conducting exchanges between mid-and-junior level officers, and providing assistance in military development and defense capabilities".

It would be appropriate for New Zealand to also seek clarification from Chinese officials about the provision in the defence white paper on the declared mission of China’s armed forces “to effectively protect the security and legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese people, organisations and institutions".

Stephen Hoadley, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland:

Much of China’s latest defence white paper contains fairly standard language. One could replace the word "China" with the "United States" and be comfortable with 90 per cent of it. 

China’s stated aspirations are similar to those of any major power. They include not only reforming and strengthening the military but also a focus on "defence", "peace", "development", respect for the UN Charter, regional stability, "mutual trust, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation", "providing international public security goods" and "building a community with a shared future for mankind".

The white paper details China’s commendable security and arms control treaties, peacekeeping deployments, military aid projects, disaster relief, and exercise and training agreements with partners. It offers figures to show that defence expenditures are "reasonable and appropriate" and that measured relative to GDP (1.3 per cent) China is a military moderate compared to Russia, India, the United States, France, and Britain. However, skeptics will note the omission of maritime militia, para-military security and border forces, and armed police from the expenditure accounting. 

Interspersed in the internationalist rhetoric are passages potentially worrying to the West. These include loyalty to President Xi Jinping’s vision of "national rejuvenation", uncompromising assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan and islands in the East and South China Seas, details on new weapons and new military bases such as Djibouti, and rearrangements of territorial and functional commands for greater combat efficiency.

To justify further military improvements and deployments, the paper singles out the United States, NATO, and Russia for undermining the international security system and strategic stability by fostering "hegemonism, power politics, unilateralism and constant regional conflicts and wars".

Western security analysts are advised to study the China white paper not only for its forthright assertions but also its unvoiced implications and deliberate omissions. Western and Asian leaders should welcome China's international defence cooperation initiatives (the 90 per cent) but at the same time make clear that certain policies asserted in China's defence white paper (the 10 per cent) are potentially disruptive of the current international order.

Jose Sousa-Santos, Managing Director of Strategika Group Asia Pacific

China's defence white paper, the first since 2015, claims to advance a "defence-oriented, peace-oriented" posture. Not surprisingly, the white paper is primarily focussed on challenges and threats to its "homeland security" with the statement that China is "the only major country yet to be completely reunified" and noting that China has one of the "most complex peripheral security environments". This is a clear reference to the PRC's "core interests" although interestingly the term is not used. Taiwanese "separatism" is centre stage here. The South China Sea disputes are framed as "countries from outside the region" illegally entering China's territorial waters and airspace near China's islands and reefs, thereby "undermining national security".

The white paper thickens up China's rhetoric towards the United States as a destabilising force and Japan for having shifted away from its pacifist post-WWII roots. Notably, Australia gets a mention for "seeking a bigger role" in regional security. For observers of the Sino-Russian relationship, it is striking that Russia is mentioned 29 times compared with two in the 2015 white paper.

In terms of how the white paper will be perceived in the wider region, including Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, the emphasis on military-to-military cooperation, military exchanges, training and assistance in military development and defence capabilities are likely to be regarded as both opportunities as well as potential points for concern leading to greater hedging by Southeast Asian countries. Reference to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions in the Pacific Islands are restricted to mention of the deployment of the PLA naval hospital ship Ark Peace.

Given the recent visit of Defence Minister Ron Mark and China-New Zealand discussions on improving HADR coordination, this will be a space to watch.

Alex Tan, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Canterbury:

White papers tend to be more outward-looking, rather than reflective documents. Countries write about issues with others, rather than with themselves. There is less self-reflection about their own role in contributing to instability and insecurity in the region. It is a bit short-sighted to say the least. In this document, China describes their assessments of current and future challenges. But one glaring omission is the situation in the South China Sea and China’s role there, despite its effect of destabilising the status quo through actions such as island building and harassment of other nations’ maritime vessels.  

On the issue of Taiwan, the white paper includes the usual rhetoric about national sovereignty, territorial integrity of the Chinese nation-state, as well as warnings about "separatism" particularly regarding Taiwanese de jure independence. In a sense, the statements are not surprising as China has been quite consistent with its position on Taiwan. However, China follows with explicit statements that it makes “no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measure… [and that] the PLA will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs.” In the past, this wouldn’t be easily realised as China’s military was less modernised and qualitatively weaker. Now more than three decades of phenomenal economic growth and consequential investment in the modernisation of the PLA definitely contribute to making these threats more real and worrisome.  

China’s white paper has all these buzzwords like strategic interest, territorial integrity, and national sovereignty. They may sound inoffensive or neutral, but are like a dog-whistle. Neighbours in East and Southeast Asia are reading between the lines for sure, leading to increased defence spending and making the region a powder keg of future troubles.

Jason Young, Director of the NZ Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington:

China’s new white paper on national defence comes during a period of heightened tension with the United States and other regional actors. Even so, compared with the 2015 paper, the white paper has not changed course from well-trodden themes of active defence, military reform and modernisation and increased defence spending. The white paper shows China is committed to its current defence modernisation strategy and to growing the international role of the People’s Liberation Army.

The white paper differs from previous iterations with its stronger and more consistent language focussed not only on China’s traditional security issues (sovereignty and territorial integrity) but also around the extension of China’s interests to the provision of global "public security goods", disaster relief and the protection of China’s overseas interests. It notes efforts to reform Asian security architecture and has clear language on promoting international cooperation.

Ideologically, there is reference to the role of the PLA promoting a "community of shared future for mankind" and "national rejuvenation" and to the "leadership core" of Chairman Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. It describes a world going through changes not seen in a century, growing uncertainty and intensifying strategic and military competition. Overall, the white paper continues China’s efforts to create a modern military capable of advancing China’s domestic and international interests.    

Views expressed in this article are personal to the authors.

Main image: Wikimedia Commons

 - Asia Media Centre